Project Description

With Bela Tarr against Ranciere

Habib Moghimi & Mohammad Bahiraei


Jacques Rancière is a popular French philosopher. He was first associated with Althusser’s circle – the mysterious circle that put science in the field outside discourse and explained the role of an intellectual with the same thought. However, Rancière later moved away from Althusser who was his mentor and was also alienated from the notion of mentorship. This is how he distanced himself from his mentor: there is no dimension beyond discourse and any logic is the repetition of the policing logic. Then, having set his boundaries with his teacher, he criticized the profession of teaching and referred to the position of teaching as the reproduction of ignorance. In this way, he distinguished himself from the intellectuals and alternatives. His task had a negative quality but he also formulated the positive phenomenon: “The political subject is a person that brings the tenet of equality into play”. However, this equality is not the creation of an alternative to others; rather, it is untimely and random. This is why the positive side of Rancière’s theory is only temporary and transitional. Thanks to the translation of the book written by Béla Tarr after being finished and Rancière’s writing about the film entitled as “Werckmeister Harmonies”, we intend to explain and conclude the challenges of thinking like Rancière.

If Rancière’s theoretical system is the symbolic phenomenon encapsulating all the elements in Béla Tarr’s works, the film “Werckmeister Harmonies” is surplus to this symbolic affair. This film does not abide by Rancière’s symbolic realm and overflows as the actual phenomenon. But why and in what direction?

The vehicle arrives. Janos who is one of the main characters in the movie stands and stares at its movement. One can read on the ad attached to the electricity pole: Extraordinary! The world’s largest whale and the other wonders of nature. The guest of honor, the prince!

In the next sequence, it is heard from the lips of an audience among the townspeople: Now, the circus arrives in this hassle. Not to mention, they’re bringing that gigantic whale and the prince. He weighs just 10 kilos. They say one can lift him with one hand! He has three eyes too. Oh…Lord knows if it’s true or false. They say he goes from town to town and gives a speech and nobody knows for sure. Even those who have seen him won’t get the idea.

Following this, the miracles caused by the prince’s presence in the town such as the repair of the old clock at the church that had stopped working and the uprooting of the poplar and all of these happenings have scared the people so much that they do not dare leave their houses especially at night. They are afraid that someone might attack them with a knife or pick their pockets. But the interesting thing is that it has been said, […on the other hand, nobody seems to be scared that they steal tombstones from the cemetery and bring down the statues in the Kanosh garden.]



This tells us that we should expect some change. Perhaps, the narrator is right and a plague is on the way. Nothing is natural. An order is about to collapse. All these rumors in this scene and the following scenes are heard through the solid presence of a newspaper as if the official media cannot be trusted. The lighting and filming in peculiar sites produce an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. There is no trust in the city. One has to fear one’s own shadow in the shades of the street.

In such circumstances, the townspeople are divided into three groups: potential rebels who gather around the circus prince and aimlessly seek to challenge the existing order without any ideals. The second group is comprised of the military men and the advocates of crackdown who are obsessed with restoring order and uniformity in the city and the last group consists of those who either have not chosen any sides in this dilemma or have no intention of doing so. Janos and Master Eszter who are the leading characters of the story belong to the third group who does not intend to play this game. With regard to these two characters, Rancière writes that “they have no possibility for compromise and understanding the others; as they seek to assess the developments, they put the social order in the hands of dishonest people” (Rancière, 2015, p. 65).

Of course, the second group that includes the military and repressive forces feeds on this insecurity regardless of orientations and tendencies. Before the revolt began and any slogan was chanted, with the beginning of the first whispers, the guardians of the state beat the drums of insecurity so that the people outside the conflict would be forced to make a choice. Béla Tarr shows us that the oppressive forces are obsessed with this state more than the insurgents; “irregularity is useful for order because it is followed by a fear leading to the further demands of order (Rancière, 2005, p. 66).” Aunt Hurl asks Janos: “People say they are breaking the stores’ windows and burn the hotels. They say one had hit the butcher on the head. Is that true?” Janos replies calmly: “Don’t worry, Aunt Hurl. Everything is all right. You can go back home quite well”. In fact, such an answer leaves no room for the feeding of the security forces to spawn the insecurity and this calmness suggested by Janos does not mean that everything is in its place; rather, he wants to tie the arm of the police in this game of insecurity.

But what are the demand and aim of the first group which are rebels? We encounter the prince through a rumor for the first time and this develops by the monologues verbalized at the beginning of the text. However, this is not just a rumor. It seems that the relationship between the followers and the leader has such a quality to the end of the film: there is no meaningful communication without any sense and understanding. Here, language has even lost its use as a tool. At these moments, the miracles performed by the prince maintain his ties to his followers: the cracks that appear in the trunk of a tree with one glimpse of the prince, the repair of the old clock, and of course his odd stature. Remember the scene where Janos goes among the rebels to realize their tricks. Janos listens to them, but they say nothing and chant no slogans. They just want to revolt and break up everything. The only message suggested by the prince is this: “Have no pity on anyone. The promised day has come. Nothing will last and anger overcomes everything…kill everyone.” And somewhere after the riots, Janos reads in the book that the rebels have left: “We really did not understand the cause of our hatred and rancor, so we crushed and destroyed whatever stood before us with an eruption of wrath that grew stronger by the minute…we destroyed the communication center because its lights were on. We could not stand the light.” This is what Zizek calls ultra-politics: a war in which there is no common ground for symbolic conflict (Zizek, 2014, p. 164). This false radicalism leaves no option for symbolic conflict other than the elimination of the rival.

With respect to these three positions, Rancière finally identifies with Janos and Eszter: “Refusing to play the game”. He thus praises the different category and logic that they produce: This couple alone constitutes a significant order (Rancière, 2015, p. 66). But the problem is that they cannot remain out of this fight forever, especially when the scene becomes extremely bipolar.

In such circumstances, Master Eszter who has refused to choose a side from the beginning of the film receives a message from the armed forces: either he has to collect the signatures of the trustees in the city to agree to the crackdown of the rebels or he will be in danger. This invitation is called the “Clean City Movement” which is actually based on the same logic fed by impurity and any element that tarnishes the whole of the city is a good excuse for shifting the territories in the city. This is exactly when ‘leaving the game’ loses its meaning. In this condition, not only you cannot leave the game, but you must also make an inevitable choice. Then, Master Eszter began collecting signatures with the help of Janos to support the crackdown on the rebels. In fact, Master’s symbolic capital comes into play here to change this choice into a discursive conduct: Legitimizing the security forces to clear the city!

That is what Rancière has neglected in this film. He has relied on the cessation of the game, Janos’s constant amazement, and Master’s harmony more than collaborative choices.

Remember the scene where Janos appears among the rebels in that cold weather. The rebels have gathered around the fire in silence. One of them forcibly pours some drink into Janos’s mouth to find out what this stranger wants among them. When the sensible order in which Rancière is interested is pure observation, the way is paved for the prince to become a leader so that the gap that has been opened in this position can be filled by one of the factors in the circus charm. But the prince wouldn’t show up on that day either. One of the circus officials announces the closure of the show and the rebel leaves Janos alone. Janos is anxious to escape from the crowded place. But some time later, he returns to the crowd for espionage. Even though he claims that he wants to find out this great mystery, the fact is that he has become an agent of Aunt Monet and the chief of police. When he is away to carry out the orders, Aunt Monet and the chief of police dance passionately without taking any notice of what happens in the city. Janos is also getting played in this game. Janos goes to the rebels to get some information, but he gets nothing except for the temptation to see the whale. He forgets the logic of the game. He gets into the car and we wait behind the closed iron door of the car used for carrying the whale. This ‘waiting’ is one of the central elements of Tarr’s films. It appears that even Rancière supports this ‘waiting’. But waiting to know the massive meaning is also exasperating in addition to being excruciatingly boring. This boredom throws some dust on the trivial meanings of life and its conclusion is the presumption that life has become a ruin. The scene is cut to the interior front where Janos is seen facing the dead whale’s open eye in absolute darkness. It seems that Janos who is always amazed and observant is not different from not dead whale. Suddenly a voice is heard. It is the voice of the official who had announced that the show is over. He is the owner of the circus and quarrels with the false prince. Janos overhears them as they speak. He learns the secret game behind the curtain. This time, he has an opportunity to differentiate himself from the carcass of the whale.

The flames of cruelty sparkle and the destruction commences. What decision would Janos make in this situation? Would he become a hero or remain an amazed observer? Béla Tarr makes him look even more inferior. It would be superb if Rancière could detect this course of inferiority. Janos runs way but the temptation of observation is stronger than that. The temptation lures him into the trap of death. On the way, he regrets what he has done and goes back to the rebels to see more of what is happening. He returns to remain stunned and dead like the whale. But can this riot be settled by amazement?

Indeed, Rancière has clearly shown his opinion about the leader in “The Foolish Master”. He has made the leader’s position so unstable that he has no choice other than neglecting the relation between Master and Janos and the logic of the rebels. He also ignores their complicity with the security forces. In the absence of Janos and Master in the symbolic realm, Rancière believes that it would suffice to consider the prince as an element of this situation. In this situation, even if we suppose that the dissidents win, they would replace another order with the police logic. With the same perspective, Rancière refuses to include any other alternative and joins Béla Tarr because the leader of the rebels is one of the attractive elements of the circus. This point has entertained Rancière. However, unlike him, Béla Tarr shows us that not only it is impossible to quit the game, but actually our limited choices can leave a profound impact on the situation. Werckmeister Harmonies shows us that one cannot leave the game forever and one is forced to make a choice; rather, in the absence of a third option, this decision could be painful with profound implications.

But what happens at the end of the film is that Janos is taken to a lunatic asylum. By being taken to the asylum, something else is revealed: quitting the game is impossible and any choice can have consequences. Moreover, in the absence of a third option, some people should bear the unpleasant consequences of these choices because they have not surrendered to the symbolic realm. Is any place more painful than a nursing home? The condition of the town is worse than before!

Rancière ignores the choice made by Eszter and Janos. He disregards the lack of alternatives and refuses to discuss the deterioration of the situation as he believes that history has only one song that shows the transition from one kind of domination to another: “In the end, this chaos fails to destroy everything else, however, it manages to sabotage one thing – the possibility that we could have the notion of a desirable and pleasant order in our minds or in front of the others which differs from the simple order provided by the police (Rancière, 2015, p. 70). In this way, he believes that democracy is a sudden phenomenon in the sense that it never reveals when it would come and go. Nevertheless, Béla Tarr has another message: in the absence of alternatives, a grotesque state awaits us.

Rancière focuses on disputes in contrast with consensus. This is not some dispute over personal interests and positions. Rather, it is a political process that resists against the judicial appeal and causes a gap in the sensible system by putting the established framework of perception, thought, and action against an unacceptable phenomenon referring to a political subject (Rancière, 2014, p. 327). Nevertheless, if any alternative is established as a consensus-based utopia, how should we define an alternative? If we were supposed to reply through a Lacanian outlook, we could respond: “How can we return to a non-utopian society which is less free and more complete? (Stavrakakis, 2013, p. 190). Seemingly, we have to seek an alternative that allows the gaps to exist within the system. Is this alternative or third option the non-institutional system that leaves the door open for the possibility of disputes?

Let us go back to the beginning of the film and the café in which the film starts. Janos plays the scene of the eclipse with the customers of the café. When the moon stands between the sun and earth, he asks the people in the café: “Are you cold? Do you feel cold?” Janos orders the moon to move away from the earth and the sun and then says: “When the sun comes out again and sees the earth, the light returns to the earth and the warmth embraces the earth…everyone is overwhelmed by deep emotions because they could escape from the grip of darkness”. It appears that Béla Tarr has a good message for us: what is temporary is the seizure of the sun and what is permanent is the sun itself. The untimely phenomenon is the eclipse, not the ever-lasting warmth of the sun. With this understanding, isn’t Béla Tarr against Rancière? On the other hand, even if he is not against Rancière, isn’t he one step ahead of him?


Stavrakakis, Yannis. (2015). Lacan and the political phenomenon. Mohammad Ali Jafari. Tehran: Phoenix

Rancière, Jacques. (2014). The politics of aesthetics. Fattah Mohammadi. Tehran: Third Millennium.

Rancière, Jacques. (2015). Béla Tarr after the end. Mohammad Reza Sheikhi. Tehran: Shourafarin.

Rancière, Jacques. (2015). The ignorant master: Five lessons about the freedom of thought. Aram Gharib. Tehran: Shirazeh Ketab Ma.

Zizek, Slavoj. (2014). Rancière’s lesson in the politics of aesthetics. Fattah Mohammadi. Tehran: Third Millennium.